6 Films to Watch for Black History Month, Recommended by an Expert
As February’s Black History Month observance rolls around, classrooms across the United States will turn their lesson plans to the African-American past — but the classroom isn’t the only place where that learning can happen.
In addition to recent high-profile additions to the canon of movies about black history, like Harriet and Marshall, Hollywood history is rich with films that make fitting watching for Black History Month. Below, Jacqueline Stewart — host of Silent Sunday Nights on Turner Classic Movies and the network’s first black host — offers, in her own words, six suggestions of films to watch for insights into the black experience. They comprise fictional features, documentary films and even one “home movie,” and together tell an important story.
“It’s important to recognize ways in which male and female black filmmakers from different backgrounds have developed their own style to get at this shared concern for trying to tell the truth about the African-American experience,” she says, “and to see film as a tool for doing that, and not relying on other people to tell our story.”
Within Our Gates (1920)
It’s one of the earliest feature films made by an African-American director, Oscar Micheaux, who was a pioneer in the race film movement, a whole industry of race movies, black-cast films, shown in theaters, wherever there were black audiences. It’s a film that shows us the migration of a black women from the South to the North — a very important experience for African Americans during the early part of the 20th century. Sylvia (Evelyn Preer) is running away from the deep trauma that occurs to her family in the South. Micheaux represents lynching, the rape of black women by white men, and the kinds of imprisonment African Americans were facing in the South in the system of sharecropping.
Its content is incredibly important for us to reflect on, and Micheaux was really unflinching in the way that he addressed social and political issues African Americans were facing during his time. Micheaux was a filmmaker who felt cinema could expose the truth about the black experience that wasn’t being exposed in mainstream media. This film is directly responding to D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915), in that Micheaux is saying that African Americans are also entitled to being full American citizens, and so it’s a film that’s remarkable in its political message.
Micheaux’s films were invariably cut and altered by censors. Some people were really sensitive about some of the things he was showing in his films, and there had just been race riots in Chicago in the summer of 1919, so there was a lot of concern about showing a film so close to those violent events that could stir up negative feelings.